Bad Decisions in History: featuring Olga of Kiev

Olga of Kiev is one of those historical figures whose fascinating legacy almost seems like the stuff of fiction, and while it’s possible that her tales of her exploits have been slightly exaggerated over the centuries, her life was still remarkable and, frankly, crazy. Olga’s ruthless decimation of a rival tribe left her a dark reputation as a vengeful and cunning warrior, but her later strong support of Christianity means that she’s also considered a saint.

Born to a family of Varyag (Viking) origin, Olga of Kiev co-reigned over Kievan Rus (part of modern day Russia, the link has a picture of the map) during the 900s. Her husband, Igor of Kiev, was killed around 945 by the Derevlian tribe, a neighbouring Slavic group who had been forced in the past to pay tribute to the Kievan Rus. When Igor rode out to collect tribute, the Derevlians revolted and instead killed him.

Bad decision: Angering Olga of Kiev

Since Igor and Olga’s son, Svyatoslav, was still a young child, Olga ruled Kievan Rus as regent until the time he would come of age. Though this gave her increased power within her realm, her husband’s death was a personal tragedy, and his murder by the Derevlians threatened the stability of the Kievan Rus rule. Olga plotted revenge.

This icicle isn’t as cold as Olga’s revenge

The perfect opportunity came when Prince Mal of the Derevlians approached Olga with an envoy of matchmakers, proposing an alliance of the two kingdoms through marriage. Feigning interest, Olga insisted upon honouring the envoys through a public ceremony, during which they would be carried in their boats into the city. She also quietly ordered for deep trenches to be dug within Kiev. When the Derevlian envoys were paraded into the city, carried in their boats, she had them thrown into the trench and buried alive.

Next, acting quickly enough that news of the envoys demise had not yet reached him, Olga sent a message to the Prince Mal, requesting a group of his best warriors to escort her back to Dereva. When the Derevlians arrived, they were directed to the bathhouse to clean up from the journey before being invited to meet her. Once they were inside, Olga had the bathhouse locked and burned to the ground.

Next, Olga herself went to Iskorosten, the capital of Dereva, on the pretext of holding a funeral for her late husband before she could consider moving forward with remarriage. Apparently the murder of Derevlian envoys was either still unknown, or explained away as a terrible accident, because she was welcomed with a grand feast that included lots of drinking. Once everyone was good and drunk, Olga ordered everyone killed. Presumably her own men had stayed sober, because around five thousand Derevlians were slaughtered while they slept it off. This scheme is a bit reminiscent of the fall of Troy, isn’t it?

Don’t trust that seemingly innocent face

By now, Olga had exacted a harsh toll of revenge, but she wasn’t finished yet. She declared war the following year, and laid siege on the city of Iskorosten. Eventually, the Derevlians tried to surrender, but Olga was not appeased by the tribute offered, since they were starving by now and had little to offer. As well, it seems tribute was not her ultimate goal, for she had other plans in mind. According to the tales, she asked for three sparrows and three pigeons from each household, which must have seemed like a random but ultimately harmless request.

It wasn’t though, because by now we know that Olga was outrageously cunning and ruthless. She had rags dipped in sulphur, lit on fire, and tied to the birds. Being released back to the skies, the birds flew home to their nests, dragging the burning rags (presumably on long enough strings that they could manage the journey back home) with them. The city burned like tinder under the rain of bird-brought fire, and Olga reckoned her revenge complete.

She continued to hold power even when her son came of age, holding Kiev while he was on military campaigns. She also turned her attentions to spreading Christianity after she converted sometime in the mid-900s. For her efforts, she was eventually canonized as Saint Olga.

Outcome: Revenge involving traps, murder, sieges, the obliteration of a city – and then religion.

 

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Book Addiction: The Fortune Hunter

It’s time for another Book Addiction post, where I share a historical novel I recently read and couldn’t put down, so that someone else might discover it, too. This month is The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin.

One of the things I loved most about The Fortune Hunter is that it made me feel much empathy for each character, even when their interests conflicted. The story centres around Bay Middleton, an expert horseman who loves racing and hunting, and is also a bit of a scandalous ladies’ man. Charming and flawed, he’s exactly the kind of romantic hero you hope will find redemption by the end of the story, and he’s also the most attractive hero with a mustache that I can think of. Due to his reputation for horsemanship, Bay is selected to be Empress Elisabeth’s pilot for the fox hunts while she is visiting England. The Empress, known as Sisi to her friends, is also an extremely skilled rider. The bond that grows between them threatens Bay’s recent engagement to Charlotte Baird, a practical young heiress with a flair for photography.

Sisi. She also apparently had a nineteen (!) inch waist

I found Sisi to be a fascinating character. Famed for her beauty, she also fears its wane as she ages, and undertakes some extreme measures to preserve her looks, such as occasionally sleeping with raw veal on her face to soften her skin. I have to say, there’s no way I would ever be motivated enough to do that. And she slept thusly with her wolfhounds in the room, necessitating the use of a leather mask to keep them from getting the veal. That’s dedication! Her ankle length hair was also so thick and heavy that she sometimes had to tie it in two ropes to the ceiling in order to relieve the pressure from her scalp. Sisi stopped allowing photographs to be taken of her, fearing that people would scrutinize them for signs of age diminishing her beauty, but every existing image of her really showcases just how long her hair must have been.

Sisi finds so much happiness in Bay’s company that I often felt myself feeling torn, because ultimately I wanted Bay and Charlotte to marry. I won’t give any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that this is a bittersweet, moving love triangle, full of tension but not melodrama.

I enjoyed Charlotte’s interest in photography, which was a relatively new technology for the time period. Her photographs are an excellent lens through which to view the setting and the minute interactions between the characters.

Queen Victoria makes a couple of brilliant cameos, as well. Her voice is so clear that you’ll swear there’s a snobby English lady over enunciating everything right inside your brain. I suppose that doesn’t really sound like a compliment if taken literally, but it is for reading. Goodwin has written two other books as well, The American Heiress and Victoria, both of which are now going on my to-read list. Victoria is actually the most recent of her books (I’m a little late discovering this treasure trove of excellent historical fiction) and Goodwin is also involved in the television series of Victoria, which is also now on my To-Watch list. I’m going to be – happily – busy!

From the book jacket:

Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, is the Princess Diana of nineteenth-century Europe. Famously beautiful, as captured in a portrait with diamond stars in her hair, she is unfulfilled in her marriage to the older Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi has spent years evading the stifling formality of royal life on her private train or yacht or, whenever she can, on the back of a horse.

Captain Bay Middleton is dashing, young, and the finest horseman in England. He is also impoverished, with no hope of buying the horse needed to win the Grand National—until he meets Charlotte Baird. A clever, plainspoken heiress whose money gives her a choice among suitors, Charlotte falls in love with Bay, the first man to really notice her, for his vulnerability as well as his glamour. When Sisi joins the legendary hunt organized by Earl Spencer in England, Bay is asked to guide her on the treacherous course. Their shared passion for riding leads to an infatuation that jeopardizes the growing bond between Bay and Charlotte, and threatens all of their futures.

The Fortune Hunter, a brilliant new novel by Daisy Goodwin, is a lush, irresistible story of the public lives and private longings of grand historical figures.